For six months in 2012 Anthony Aalto, Chair of the O'ahu Group of the Sierra Club and co-producer of the movie, explored the arguments for and against the biggest civil engineering project in Hawaii. And everywhere he went co-producer Mike Hinchey followed - camera on shoulder.
The result is Railroading Paradise, a film that asks the question: how could a five billion dollar, 20-mile long railway line, built thirty feet in the air, atop massive concrete pillars, ever be justified as the environmentally responsible thing to do on a tiny tropical island like O'ahu?
And yet in 2012, Hawai'i's biggest and most respected environmental organization did just that. And they did it in the middle of one of the most bitter mayoral elections Honolulu has ever seen, with one candidate determined to kill the train and the other determined to build it.
The Sierra Club decision was highly controversial: donors cut the club out of their wills; members resigned; there were press leaks, accusations of betrayal and attacks in the progressive media.
The fight was so bitter because at its heart, both sides share a common fear: that O'ahu is in danger of losing what is left of its beauty, charm and aloha spirit.
Opponents believe the train is a sop to developers that will spark a building boom of new housing that will be gobbled up by wealthy foreigners and mainlanders who will exhaust the island's precious resources. It's time to stop all growth they say.
Proponents argue that growth is inevitable. They say that to halt new development is to condemn the bottom half of society to squalor and homelessness. And if new housing is built, they argue that the only responsible thing to do is to focus it on the part of the island already urbanized, otherwise the entire island will be consumed by suburban sprawl. But if you're going to squeeze more people into the urban core, you need a new transportation system.
As they explored the arguments Hinchey and Aalto interviewed dozens of politicians and experts, including all three mayoral candidates, one of the island's top economists, a transportation engineer who is the intellectual leader of the opposition, an architect who has led the nationwide effort to oppose suburban sprawl, the construction union leader who led the multi-million dollar effort to torpedo the anti-rail campaign and many more.
They also captured some remarkable aerial footage showing what development has done to the island thus far as well as vintage footage that harks back to the days before unbridled growth changed the island's character forever.
At the start of the debate, most of the Sierra Club committee members opposed the project. By the time the debate was done they reluctantly supported it. In doing so they embraced a position that many find surprising: if you love nature and want to preserve the parts of the island that still retain their rural charm, you have to learn to love the city and invest as much care in it as the wild and undeveloped places.
But would the rationale for the committee's gutsy decision be justified by a change in development policies? That question is what gave rise to the two sequels: Forever Country and The Third City.